By Jeannette Chong Aruldoss
In 2004, over 1000 volunteers worked to uncover Fort Tanjong Katong in Katong Park and, in the process, recovered and fortified their community ties.
A dry season in 2001 uncovered an outline of a bastion wall, capturing the attention of Mountbatten resident, Jack Sim, who urged authorities to investigate the site. In 2004, archaeologists were commissioned to excavate the buried Fort. The initiative grew at a rapid pace and in space of four weeks, $200,000 had been raised to fund the excavation.
Archaeologists and volunteers worked tirelessly to uncover a military structure so intact that experts were quick to call it Singapore’s only ‘true fort’. It was hailed as one of Singapore’s most important archaeological finds.
The uncovering of the Fort created an atmosphere of euphoria as more than 1000 volunteers, ranging from students to working professionals, came together to assist archaeologists. Lim Chen Sian, archaeologist and Head Project Manager of the 2004 Fort Tanjong Katong excavation, marvelled the project’s effect on the local community:
“It triggered something in themselves and their environment [because] it’s more than just ‘My school teacher told me this’ or ‘My textbook taught me that’. It became something organic.” – Lim Chen Sian
The Fort stirred a fierce spirit within the residents of Mountbatten. The discovery of history and the reappearance of a remnant of a different era created a sense of ownership among the people. They united with a new spirit – bersatu dengan semangat yang baru – to uncover and perhaps even recover something they could call their own. Something unique to their neighbourhood; a landmark they could be proud of.
The restoration of the Fort represented a similar re-building of a spirit of community buried in the hearts of Mountbatten’s residents. As the Fort was increasingly revealed, so were the ties of community. The Fort became an important symbol of the neighbourhood’s identity, something not immediately obvious, but clearly felt by the hundreds who volunteered in that period.
Unfortunately, efforts to uncover the Fort have run into obstacles over the years as the government cited costs of excavation and maintenance, and problems arising from the fact that the Fort extends into state land. It is a shame that local government organizations like the People’s Association did not push for initiatives like these to be completed. It is disappointing that Mountbatten’s political leaders did not seize this momentous opportunity to listen to its community and work with them to rediscover heritage and strengthen communal ties. This is certainly a let-down for the community at large. The Fort not only possesses a historical significance, but it also could have also served as a symbol of pride and identity for Mountbatten residents and for Singaporeans at large.
As the over a century-old Fort is reburied into the ground, the atmosphere of community excitement surrounding it has also died down. The hundreds of volunteers have since fragmented and moved on with their own lives – perhaps wistfully holding on to the memory of a time when Mountbatten came together uncover a piece of history they could claim as their own. In short, a golden opportunity for community-building has been squandered.
But the short excavation gave us a glimpse of Mountbatten’s potential. A fort is a defensive structure that allows a group of people to defend and fight as a stronger unit. It is designed to turn away foes and to strengthen a community of people. It surrounds, it protects, and it inspires. It is a physical symbol of the courage and resilience of a people, because it sends the message, “We are here; we are in this together; and we are staying.”
But a fort does not need to be standing to draw a community together. Its metaphorical walls also can remind people of their unity and spirit.
In 2004, the Fort allowed a community to be greater than the sum of its parts. The gathering of 1000 enthusiastic volunteers shows that the community can be strong and vigorous when it is united for a cause.
I believe that this is but a tantalising taste of what Mountbatten as a community is capable of when it is able to come together. I only hope that the community will be given another opportunity to rediscover its identity and be proud of its heritage.
Jeannette Chong Aruldoss is a member of the Singapore People’s Party and is slated to contest in the upcoming General Election, for the seat in Mountbatten SMC.